Part 1: Institutional and Cultural Barriers to Church Growth
by Aaron Klinefelter
Church planting is hard. This has been the consistent refrain from church planters I have interviewed. The Rev. Tim Baer of Grace Church said when I spoke with him, “It’s a good idea to do a couple years of a curacy before church planting, because you will work harder than you ever have before.” The clear implication was that curacy is far easier than church planting.
A simple Google search tells us a good deal about the position of church planting in the Episcopal Church.
“Church Planting” Google Search Results:
“church planting” – About 3,840,000 results
“evangelical church planting” – About 1,450,000 results
“baptist church planting” – About 552,000 results
“presbyterian church planting” – About 428,000 results
“lutheran church planting” – About 398,000 results
“united methodist church planting” – About 267,000 results
“episcopal church planting” – About 144,000 results
If these Google search results are any indication of the overall trends in church planting amongst these various Christian traditions, the Episcopal Church is woefully negligent in its efforts to plant churches.
Why is this the case? Why is it peculiarly difficult to start new communities of faith in our tradition? Is there a particularly Anglican way to engage in church planting? There are three reasons why church planting is particularly challenging in the Episcopal Church: the paradox of authority, risk aversion, and the lack of evangelism and discipleship. This essay will outline these three challenges and offer a path forward to address them. We will consider what can be learned from the history of church planting, churches being planted currently, the Diocese of London, and role of baptismal ecclesiology in this missional work. Along the way, we will discover the apostolic impulse of God that is born out in the church’s missiological posture. This missional inclination is expressed as the church is embedded in a particular context within a community.
The first challenging facing the Episcopal Church is the paradox of authority that undermines our efforts to engage strategically in launching new missional churches. Certainly, the General Convention can allocate funds from its budget to support and encourage church planting, but without diocesan bishops’ support it would be little more than well-wishing. The General Convention budget of the triennium 2015-2018 was increased to support the work of evangelism and church planting. At the time of his writing, the proposed budget for the next triennium, 2018-2021, is set to continue this funding. But this has been a contentious process. According to the Episcopal News Service, the originally proposed budget in the fall of 2017 would have drastically reduced funds for church planting.
The Rev. Susan Brown Snook, chair of council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Ministry and Mission, told council that money for evangelism would be cut by 41 percent in this version of the budget. At the same time, the presiding bishop’s office budget would increase by 49 percent and governance costs would go up by 39 percent, she said.
If the church at large cuts funding for church planting then either church planting will be curtailed or the burden will fall even more squarely on dioceses. The final result of the approved General Convention budget will, like all budgets, be an indicator of the church’s priorities and mission.
The primary point of authority for church planting resides in the diocesan bishop. But herein lies the paradox. Diocesan bishops have the authority for planting new churches under their purview, but many lack, or perceive they lack, the financial resources to invest in the uncertain future inherent in church planting. Likewise, diocesan bishops are often beset by administrative and pastoral demands. The tyranny of the urgent and the accumulated maintenance of a diffuse organization leave little time for envisioning and prospecting into the future. The result is that bishops and diocesan staffs are overwhelmed with increasing demands – parishes in conflict, hospice care for dying congregations, clergy misconduct, training new clergy, discerning aspirants for ordination, and shrinking budgets.
In a related sense, most individual parishes do not have the resources to launch a new church. And more to the point, under our current canons they do not have the authority to plant a church in full. In fact, local churches are actively encouraged not to transgress their locales to start new ministries within the bounds of other parishes. In a conversation with the Rev. Tom Brackett, Manager for Church Planting and Redevelopment for the Episcopal Church, reflecting on the challenges of church planting, commented that even if we were never the official established church of the US we have adopted this mentality. And, that unlike other Christian traditions, we do not have missional roots. The real issue is authority. Who has the authority, or the permission, to start something new? Who possesses the resources to support the new initiative and who is willing to take the risk to embrace the opportunity?
Second, as an established, mainline church we are too often risk-averse. The Rev. Tim Baer, estimated that traditional church plants often require seven to ten years of diocesan and/or parent church support and patience. And even with all that support there is no guarantee that these church plants will succeed. In Rev. Baer’s appraisal, the Episcopal Church has financial assets but is reluctant to spend them because of a fear of failure.
The risk is not merely financial, though it is often expressed in those terms. The rampant assumption is that the Episcopal Church does not have the money to spend on new ventures when we are barely keeping the doors open at many congregations. In 2014, as the Rev. Susan Brown Snook, church planter of The Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Arizona, was writing her book on church planting in the Episcopal Church a revealing conversation unfolded on the Episcopal Café website. She commented on the thread, “We seem to think we have no money and no way to make these things happen. But we do have money – our church-wide budget alone is well over $100 million this triennium. What we have is a failure to use the ample resources we have in a strategic way.”
The failure to use resources for new missional endeavors and church plants is directly tied to risk aversion throughout the system. Jim Naughton, commenting on Snook’s work on a different post on the Episcopal Café notes, “I don’t think we can plant more [churches] until we close more [churches] freeing up assets and energy. But closing and merging parishes requires a bishop to spend a lot of political capital, so I can understand why many avoid doing so.” The Episcopal Church has shown consistent reluctance to spend its financial, social, and political capital on innovative and generative work that requires risk and uncertain return on investment.
The third challenge of church planting in the Episcopal Church is, perhaps, the root cause of both confused and paradoxical authority and pervasive risk aversion. That is, the fear of evangelism and discipleship. David Gortner states it plainly in his book Transforming Evangelism, “’Evangelism’: it is a strangely uncomfortable word for mainline Christians, and especially for Episcopalians. Some refer jokingly to the ‘E-word,’ laughingly acknowledging a feeling that ‘evangelism’ is a dirty word.” If evangelism is frightful, church planting is unthinkable. Gortner goes on to explain that there have been a great many efforts to inculcate evangelism throughout the leadership of the Episcopal Church.
Unfortunately, this top-down approach has yielded very few results and no appreciable change in culture. The evangelism efforts that have been tried have been generally institutional and corporate; the emphasis is on visiting or attending church, not on personal spiritual practice born of mutual humanity and relationship motivated by the Holy Spirit.
The aversion to evangelism is rooted more deeply in a lack of discipleship. In fact, the resistance to evangelism may be more properly a symptom of our failure to engage in lifelong Christian transformation. The Rev. Rock Higgins, Priest in Charge at St. James the Less, Ashland, Virginia, commented on a Facebook note in which I was working out these hypotheses, “I would also add Discipleship, or rather lack thereof. In many of the Episcopal churches of which I have been a part that education program was light at best. Folks who were ‘serious’ go for EfM [Education for Ministry] to get discipled. Their enthusiasm is for EfM. What if people were actually excited about their faith, seeing that it had made a real difference in their lives?” A church-wide embrace of church planting will be largely resisted if evangelism is something in which Episcopalians do not engage. Any impetus for evangelism will be thwarted by a lack of discipleship.
Dwight Zscheile highlights this drought of discipleship in his assessment of the survey results from a Renewalworks study of 12,000 Episcopalians in 200 congregations around the country, “talk of missional transformation often meets resistance because many church members don’t know the Christian story very well, don’t have functioning spiritual practices in their lives (beyond Sunday worship), and are ambivalent about embracing discipleship as their core identity.” This ambivalence undoubtedly leads most often to apathy around any effort to actively engage in missional work. This is not limited to evangelism or church planting, but it certainly includes them both.
The lack of discipleship has direct implications for church planters in the field. When the Rev. Kelly Steele, church planter at Church of the Epiphany in Savannah, Georgia, needed to recruit Episcopalians to help with the startup work of forming a new congregation she found that many were unwilling to take the necessary risks to help.
She noted to me, “Discipleship was woefully underdeveloped, even among cradle Episcopalians.” It is clear that risk-aversion and lack of discipleship go hand in hand. Add these self-reinforcing positions to the complexity of Episcopal polity and the church has a potent and toxic cocktail that precludes serious engagement with the renewing work of church planting.
Church planting is hard enough as an innovative practice. It is made all the more challenging, if not impossible, when our authority structures are poorly designed for innovation and new missional engagement. If we, as a church, have embraced a culture of scarcity and risk aversion we will be reluctant to try new things and start new communities. Both of these factors are fueled and exacerbated by a lack of discipleship and evangelism. Can these factors be overcome? Is it possible to counter these forces to foster a culture of innovation and church planting in the Episcopal Church? I believe that it is.
In Part 2 Why is Church Planting Important, we look at how church Planting generates benefits for the whole church and not just for the new congregation.
Aaron Klinefelter has been a House Church planter and pastor, a youth minister, a university campus minister, and presently serves as the Assistant to the Rector and Associate for Children and Families at Trinity Church in Menlo Park, CA. He also is a postulant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio. But most of the time you can find him driving his kids around in a minivan